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Security for Judges
December 28, 2012 permalink
British judges are unhappy with courthouse security. They want separate corridors and washrooms so they won't be able to encounter litigants. They claim their security is endangered by the emotional problems of the parents before them.
- an act or the commission of an act that is forbidden or the omission of a duty that is commanded by a public law and that makes the offender liable to punishment by that law; especially : a gross violation of law
- a grave offense especially against morality
A half-century ago, kidnappers got the death penalty. At that time, Merriam-Webster's two definitions both applied to the act. Today, kidnapping is conducted with the power of the state and the law has been twisted out of shape. Judges who think parents have an emotional problem should take time to examine who is really committing the grave offense against morality. Parents coming into family court are treated as criminal according to definition one, but it is the courts who are committing the crime in definition two (2). To add insult to injury, victims of crime (2) are required to address the perpetrators with terms of honor. The real wonder is that there are so few acts of violence against the courts and other functionaries of this twisted law.
Family judges seek protection from parents in 'unsafe' courts
Dangerously inadequate security arrangements during family cases leave officials vulnerable to attack, say judges
Family judges across England say they fear being attacked by angry or disturbed parents because security in court is often dangerously inadequate.
It is rare for judges to raise their concerns publicly, but a number have taken the unusual step of speaking out to criticise security at the principal registry of the family division (PRFD) in central London, and also at district courts around the country.
In one incident, a female judge was seriously injured in an attack. Judges also told of parents shouting threats at them, as well as throwing books and cups.
"I have been threatened," one judge told the Guardian, speaking under condition of anonymity. "A very angry father stood up and shouted antisemitic threats at me. Another father threw a cup of water across the courtroom. Another parent threw a book, but fortunately I was too far away for it to reach me."
A second judge, also speaking anonymously, said of the PRFD: "I'm constantly, constantly exposed when I work there. There's no security in the courtroom. None. Sometimes we are in the courtroom alone with a parent. Most commonly, we sit with a clerk, who, in my experience, is always an elderly woman. If anything went wrong, believe you me, she would not be the one defending me.
"We shouldn't have to walk in the public corridors of a building where we have just removed someone's child for ever," the judge added. "At the PRFD, there are no private corridors for judges at all, which means we have to walk through public waiting areas and corridors when moving between courtrooms, entering and leaving the building. We can't even go to the loo without passing through a public area. I feel uncomfortable every time I have to do it. I'm very aware of the constant risk."
A third judge who has worked in the PRFD and courts across London said: "Most district judges, even those doing highly charged family cases, do not have courtrooms at all but hear the cases in their chambers with the public sitting around the table, and they don't have anyone in the court room at all. I have never understood why it is thought that they are less at risk than the higher judiciary."
One circuit judge, who sits in county and crown courts and also in the family division in London, said security arrangements were inadequate. "These are the most volatile, sensitive courts in the land, and one of these days there's going to be trouble in them. The risks are not being addressed properly and unless someone starts considering the security properly then it's a disaster waiting to happen. It will take one serious incident and someone will wake up to the fact that the system is not safe for family judges."
The Guardian has learned of a recent incident when a female judge was seriously injured by an aggrieved parent in the courtroom. The judge has confirmed the violent and deliberate attack but preferred not to give details.
"While it's true that you can't exclude a chance of an attack … the question is whether the essential issue of us judges being hidden away from the public is being complied with, and the answer is, it's not," said a judge who hears cases in the PRFD. "The second question is how protected we judges are when in the courtroom," she said. "The answer to that question is, again, that we're not. The only thing we can do is try to pick out cases with potential violence … and transfer them to the Royal Courts of Justice."
Judges said county courts often do not have a courtroom and a retiring room for district judges. This forces them to hear cases in their chambers, with those involved often sitting uncomfortably close, while the lack of a retiring room means judges have nowhere to go to go if it became necessary to escape an aggressive parent.
"If anything happens, the only place to run is through an adjoining door between my court and that of the other district judge," said a family judge at a court in outer London.
"People blow up in court, of course they do, we're taking their children away. We do have security in my court but they consist of very elderly men and a couple of young girls. The fact that it has not happened so far doesn't mean that it won't."
Another said: "No judge should ever have to sit without a clerk or usher in the courtroom but that is happening all over. It is very bad at the PRFD at the moment."
District judge Nicholas Crichton, founder of the family drug and alcohol court at Wells Street family proceedings court in central London, who was given a CBE in this year's Queen's birthday honours list, said it was a "recipe for flashpoint" to compel judges to walk through public areas and share corridors. Crichton said it was unfair to put anxious parents under the added stress of close proximity with the judge ruling on their case. "Emotions run high. These parents are coming to court feeling criticised about how they treat their children and terrified they're going to have their children removed. That's a pretty toxic mix, but they're not criminals. Everything they have read in the paper and on TV leads them to be frightened of coming to court."
Crichton created an informal regime in Wells Street to reduce the risk of violence. "I'm not going to tell you that we've never had violent incidents here," he said. "We have, but they're few and far between because we have designed a system where parents feel respected from the moment they enter the building."
There are no publicly available statistics for the number of attacks on judges, but a spokesman for the judicial office at the Royal Courts of Justice said: "While we have noticed no recent increase in the level of significant incidents, security continues to be treated as a serious issue. The judiciary monitors security regularly, with input from a broad range of judges in different locations and courts."
A spokesperson from her majesty's courts and tribunals service said: "HMCTS takes the issue of security within courts extremely seriously. Our security system is continually monitored to ensure that it is effective and proportionate and mitigates against risks faced."
Source: Guardian (UK)
A follow-up in February. This time the Guardian defends judges who enjoin litigants from posting criticism on the internet.
Justice ministry under pressure to curb attacks on family court judges
- Official records reveal 26 incidents in a year, including assaults
- Parents in custody disputes spit and throw chairs at judges
Judges dealing with sensitive issues – including child custody – in the family courts have had hate mail sent to their homes, been physically attacked and been victims of attempted assaults in court buildings, according to information obtained by the Guardian.
In the 12 months up to January this year, 26 incidents were recorded, including one direct threat to life and three physical attacks. The Guardian understands – from another source – that one of these involved a judge who required hospital attention after being knocked to the floor and beaten by a parent over whose case she was presiding.
Family judges recently took the highly unusual step of admitting widespread concerns about their safety to the Guardian but this is the first time official details have been disclosed listing the actual risks faced by judges in England and Wales.
Despite the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) saying it had "a robust security and safety system to protect court users and the judiciary", families whose cases were being heard were able to throw chairs and water at judges. Other judges reported being spat at. Six received abusive or threatening correspondence.
There are likely to have been more attacks than official records reveal, however. Judges said they were reluctant to speak out publicly about the violence they encountered in the courts or make official complaints for fear of increasing the threats.
"It is part of judges feeling exposed and unprotected, I suppose," said one judge speaking anonymously. "We all have what is meant to be a hotline to the police in case of trouble but I'm not sure it works. A judge told me he rang it and absolutely nothing happened. It was not a hotline at all in his experience.
"There is also a problem of people putting horrible stuff on the net, including threats. Judges have made orders for them to stop but I don't know if they do."
A number of freedom of information requests submitted by the Guardian revealed that at least five district judges have received threatening correspondence in the past year related to hearings they have presided over. One letter was sent to a judge's home address, three messages were posted on social media sites and one abusive email was received – the last two incidents suggesting the writers were able to discover and access the judges' private email addresses and social media pages, such as Facebook.
Family courts deal with parental disputes over the upbringing of children; local authority intervention to protect children; decrees relating to divorce; financial support for children after divorce or relationship breakdown; some aspects of domestic violence and adoption.
Another judge told of an incident in which a judgment was secretly taped. "A man who promised me he was not recording the hearing did so, then posted the recording online," said the judge.
"His page was full of stuff about a judge, not nice, not me. I warned that judge and made a lot of it because I thought he was a threat. A high court judge made orders about it."
Any subsequent breaking of a court order could lead to the offender being sent to prison or fined.
The HMCTS refused the Guardian access to reports regarding the incidents and said it was not known whether any of the perpetrators' actions were reported to the police or how many cases went on to criminal proceedings.
But, said another judge: "The trouble is that no one will do anything about it. Clearly, that is not right and in my view the Ministry of Justice or the attorney general should do something but I'm not aware of it happening. If the case is still ongoing, the judge running the case can deal with it, but if the case is over, and it is often when a final decision is made that these things happen, then in my experience nothing happens."
However, another judge said: "For over a decade, I have been interfering in people's lives in the most drastic sense and I've not been seriously abused or threatened. Perhaps that is surprising?"
The HMCTS said it took security within courts extremely seriously and had "a robust security and safety system to protect court users and the judiciary".
"This system includes mandatory bag searches, metal detectors and surveillance cameras, as well as court security officers who have legislative powers to protect all those in the court building. The powers of the court security officers include the ability to restrain and remove people from the building should there be a need," it said.
"Our security system is continually monitored to ensure that it is effective and proportionate and mitigates against the risks faced."
Source: Guardian (UK)